What Makes A Successful Musician?

Many students who go to college for music don’t really have a life plan. Who are we kidding; many students who go to college for anything don’t have a life plan. But after we graduate, musicians need to make money just like anyone else.

So what makes a successful musician?

There are so many ways a musician can be successful that it’s really confusing. And it can be rough out there, especially when expectations are set for how your life post-college should go, and there seem to be as many expectations as career paths.

Have you heard of mommy guilt? I hadn’t until we had our son last winter. Suddenly I was inundated with advice: I must breastfeed, no bottles, no pacifiers, have him sleep in the swing/crib/our bed/bouncy seat, he’s sleeping too much, too little, too long. I should/shouldn’t eat dairy or oatmeal or have a glass of wine. Make sure I get up early to get things done, wear him around the house, or don’t because he’ll become too dependent.

That’s a short list. A very short list of the confusing, conflicting advice that people have given me. I wasn’t ready. Every person had a different idea of what constituted successful parenting. And parenting looks different in every family.

The same thing happens to musicians when we set out on our own because there are so many paths to take. I’m going to call what we feel when we get inundated with advice that makes us feel inadequate musician guilt.

Musician guilt is just as bad as mommy guilt.

I had a teacher once who was in her 40’s, lived alone with her two cats, had two university jobs teaching (that were several states apart), played in a new music ensemble that toured and recorded, and also traveled around the world giving masterclasses. This teacher felt completely fulfilled (or at least she told me she did) and found her lifestyle to be exhilarating.

To me, this lifestyle sounded like a nightmare. I wanted a family, a house, and some sense of stability. I don’t like to fly, so that’s right out. What I envisioned for my life was completely different from my teacher’s idea of success, and we butted heads a lot. I got the sense she looked down on me, like I was lazy or mediocre, and it made me a bit jaded by the time I set out on my own to be a musician.

There are so many ways to be successful as a musician!

Some musicians love to write their own songs, or make covers of songs, and record them. Maybe they’re a solo artist like a pianist, or in a small ensemble. They sell the recordings or sheet music, play a little around town, maybe teach a bit.

Other musicians look for a full time teaching job at a university, and pair that with playing in a symphony. Or maybe they have several part time university teaching jobs and play with a chamber group.

Even more college music students go on to teach music in public or private schools. Maybe they play in a community group, or play professionally. Maybe not! Some of them teach privately, others don’t.

Still others go on to careers outside of music, but continue to play in their spare time. Some start this way and then transition back into doing music full-time.

Who’s to say we’re not all successful?

When I went to college, my idea of success was to play in an orchestra (I got my first two degrees in oboe) and teach at a university. As I finished my masters degree and got out into the real world, I found this wasn’t really the path for me. You guys, I’m terrible at auditioning. So bad. So very very bad. Once I came to terms with this, and stopped beating myself up over it, I looked at my life and spent a few years working different jobs, trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

What I find really sad is that many of the college students who get music performance degrees and don’t know how to make it work in the real world (either because they’re not sure what to do, or how to do it) end up completely giving up on music. They find a day job and just try to forget about that part of their life. The part where they were a member of a fantastic community; our own little special musician world where we are experts in our own right.

You didn’t go to college for nothing.

No matter where you are now in your music career, I’m here to tell you that you can make it work. You don’t have to quit your day job and hope for the best. Start small. Find some friends to play duets with. Get some holiday music ready and play for a nursing home this year! That’s what I did when I was working full time in pharmacy. It doesn’t have to be hard and it doesn’t have to be fancy.

If you’re already knee deep in creating your successful music life, know that there are plenty of musicians out there who support you. Find the right community, whether it’s a facebook group, a professional organization like MTNA, or a group of friends from college. Take all the advice and the feedback you can get, and then make your own path with what feels right for you. Own it, love it, and know that only you are living your life, and it doesn’t have to fit any particular mold.

Here are two of my favorite guidebooks for creating your personal vision of success as a musician: (Disclosure: These are affiliate links. I’ll make a teeny commission if you purchase something after clicking these links.)

Beyond Talent: Creating a Successful Career in Music (by Oxford University Press

I read and re-read the first edition of Beyond Talent in grad school. This is the newer edition.

The Savvy Musician: Building a Career, Earning a Living & Making a Difference

The Savvy Musician author also has a book specifically about building a teaching career.

Want to know more about the different paths musicians take, and what it means to be successful? Sign up for my email list! This is the first post in a three part series on success as a musician, and I’d love for you to explore this complicated career path with me. Just click the button below.


Let me know in the comments below what makes you feel like a success in your music career. If you’re not quite there yet, that’s ok, tell me what would get you there!

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